Saturday, September 19, 2020

Other People: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

Hell is, as Sartre tells us, other people, and that’s certainly the source of evil in Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time. Here’s a litany of human ugliness and violence consistently inflicted on and by a couple families over the course of a couple decades in small-town backwoods Appalachia in the middle of the last century. It’s just about as far north as you can take a Southern Gothic tale—the eccentric misery without the humid atmosphere. Based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also narrates in a nice honeyed tone that gives a layer of slightly wry literary gravitas to the dark goings-on, the film contains murders, suicides, poverty, con men, serial killers, animal cruelty, trauma, and madness, all drenched in a self-righteous pseudo-religiosity that’s the cause of and solution to their problems. Campos, whose films like his previous Christine or early breakout Afterschool have similar interests in violence and mental unravellings of one sort or another, treats the procession of this narrative with a grave seriousness. He regards his characters with the squirm-inducing attention to their terrible fates that one associates with a butterfly pinned in a display case. Lol Crawley’s elegantly textured cinematography, all blasts of sun and evocative shadow in a CinemaScope-sized frame, gives a tony prestige to the images, even and especially as the nastiness accrues. The cast is uniformly haunted: wide stares, pale skin, curling lips chewing over every gnarled line with pulpy accent work. There’s a WWII vet (Bill Skarsgård) scarred by his experiences and trying to start a family with a nice lady (Haley Bennett). There’s a creepy photographer (Jason Clarke) and his wife (Riley Keough). There are two different slimy preachers (Harry Melling and, later, Robert Pattinson). There’s a cop (Sebastian Stan), a devout young woman (Mia Wasikowska), and a couple of troubled orphans (Tom Holland and Eliza Scanlen). These lives collide in mostly tragic ways over the course of two plus hours, gaining a dreary monotony as each new sequence becomes a waiting game to see which character will exit the murdered and which will walk out the murderer. Either way, blood will be spilled. Few of the human characters walk out alive, and even a few of the animals end up strung up. In the end, it becomes a slog of fine filmmaking put toward a simple idea repetitively asserted: if hell is other people, then the devils are among us.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Choice: NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS

Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a great political film because it’s only personal. It’s a character study that uses that lens to be about inequalities and oppression, about casual sexism and the grinding impoverishment of our young and vulnerable. The film sits squarely on the shoulders of a troubled teenager (Sidney Flanigan) who is 17 and pregnant. She hasn’t been for long. She doesn’t want to be. She shouldn’t be. We don’t know how it happened, but it’s clear it shouldn’t go on. She hasn’t the resources. She hasn’t the support. And yet there’s no way for her to get a medical procedure that’d enable her to move on with her life. Shot with a quotidian beauty and realist patience, Hittman, whose previous films like Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love similarly carried a tremulous sense of marginalized lives and quiet desperation, here makes her greatest film. It’s a patient, impeccably attuned character study that simply regards its main character’s plight. The girl recruits a friend (Talia Ryder) to accompany her on a savings-draining trip across state lines, out of Pennsylvania and into New York in search of the closest clinic that’ll help her without a parent’s signature. The two young women hang out, talk softly, wander aimlessly, and navigate red tape. At one point, loitering in the train station while they await an early morning appointment, they’re joined by a slightly older young man (Théodore Pellerin) who tries to befriend them, hangs out with them, shows them around a few blocks, and all the while has no idea the deep burden that is their purpose. He’s carefree in ways they never could be.

Hittman’s wise, soulful film is perched precisely on sensitive emotional pressure points, with the pretty dancing grain of its cinematography and the editing’s graceful pacing full of pregnant pauses that leverage the unspoken for great power. Hittman’s screenplay, exquisitely realized, is all about the spaces between the lines, the glances between the friends, the long, freighted tension around a family table, or in every softly spoken question from a social worker (Kelly Chapman) who sits off screen for the film’s centerpiece of patiently drawn emotional revelations. There the girl is quietly walked through an intake form that screens for abuse and neglect—a scene that sits square in close-up as she’s steadily, then unsteadily, then cautiously, then carefully, and so on, answers the questions one after another. It goes on and on and on, peeling layers and growing scar tissue in a sensitive cycle. Her face speaks more than her voice, a whole life backstory unraveling in subtext and dropped eye contact and subtle dancing tears. It’s a powerhouse, all the more effective for not going for melodrama or messaging. It’s a deeply moral vision of the consequences of blind right-wing sloganeering, emphatically empathetic as we stare into the face of one whose life choices have been made far more difficult than they should be. This is a powerful and humane expression of the value of a young woman’s life and decisions, and the casual callousness it takes to deny her what should be immutable.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Haley's On It: HEARTS BEAT LOUD, ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, and ALL TOGETHER NOW

Brett Haley films are nice. Not naive. Not simplistic. But kind and gentle in ways that demonstrate maturity and perspective. He’s a fine director of actors. He gets warm, humane performances that are generous, honest, and flushed with the charm of well-observed moments. Lately he’s had sitcom stars — Nick Offerman, Justina Machado, Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Armisen — and rising young thespians — Kiersey Clemons, Sasha Lane, Elle Fanning, Auli’i Cravalho — in the most tender, quiet, open-hearted, dewey-eyed star turns. They’re given the space to do the kind of deeply, casually felt character work in which these familiar faces don’t disappear into their roles, but inhabit them, drawing out a life by playing it uncomplicatedly and imbuing it with inner light. If these films—sweet YA adaptations, or just leaning into the tropes for structure’s sake—drift slightly into formula on the plot level, there’s something too honest about the performances to ring false. Like the acoustic indie pop all over the soundtracks, these films breathe with a feeling of comforting style, while textured enough to tease out rougher edges. These are the movies the post-Fault in their Stars teen dramas wanted to be, but so rarely were.

I first discovered his work with 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud, a story of a single father (Offerman) and his teenage daughter (Clemons) who bond over making music during her last summer before college. It sings with its simply dramatized scenes of characters’ connections, a give and take dynamic that’s pure and earnest, and builds with all the prickliness of these specific people. It builds to a moment of ecstatic musical release, and then a well-earned quiet, resigned, wistful denouement. The songs by Keegan DeWitt are wonderful, not too good that they’re unbelievable, but good enough to buy them as earning a small-scale local buzz. And the movie is low-key inhabited by a wise sense of parental perspective, willing to get caught up in a new project, but all-too aware of the looming empty nest. It’s a movie about conversations, softly played and sensitively staged, as characters try to bolster relationships. There are criss-crossing subplots made up of the characters' ensemble of friends and connections (this supplies a bounty of character actors in supporting roles), but the focus is so keenly on the leads and this one liminal moment in a perfectly aimless summer. It builds into a lovely little portrait of a space and moment in these people’s lives—a sense carried over into Haley’s two straight-to-Netflix films of 2020.

First up was All the Bright Places, a serious-minded teen relationship picture that finds a suicidal girl (Fanning) and a bipolar boy (Justice Smith) drawn into a tentative romance. They meet on the edge. And maybe, just maybe, they can pull each other back. Without steering into the gloopy sentiment—which could easily have turned the tricky subject matter dangerous—the movie posits the teens’ connection as both a saving grace, and a suspenseful pause. Fanning, especially, sells the carefully hidden raw-nerve of an image-conscious teen’s struggle to hide her anguish. The whole school knows her older sister died last year. It’s weird when it’s acknowledged outright, but weird to ignore it, too. Her parents (Luke Wilson and Kelli O’Hara) are only so much help. They’re grieving, too, after all. Maybe a sympathetic ear is all she needs. Yet the boy, too, needs more psychological help than a teen romance can provide. The movie is surface soft, but willing to touch the true discomfort of real adolescent trauma. And it’s willing to admit, in ways the John Green copycats weren’t always able, that True Teenage Love is not a syrupy panacea for whatever ailment is crafted into a narrative hook. It instead invests in conversations between teens, parents, teachers, and different combinations thereof, finding unexpected emotional honesty far more appealing than loud cliche.

Even better in that regard is All Together Now, in which there’s no teen romance to speak of. Our lead (Cravalho) simply has no time for that. She’s a hard-working high schooler with her heart set on a college application. She holds down multiple jobs and barely has time to say hello to her mother (Machado) before falling asleep. They’re barely making ends meet, so she has to contribute to the household income. Or rather, the fund for a household, since they are currently experiencing homelessness. Her mother is, luckily, a part-time school bus driver, so they can sneak into her empty one and catch a few hours of sleep each night before her early-morning shifts. This sort of quiet desperation, in which the girl is forced to slap on a happy face and stay busy-busy-busy because she wants to keep up appearances though she has nowhere to go, is charted as a quickly sketched process. We see the logic of her day, step by step. Here’s where she can casually borrow a shower, or part of a lunch. Here’s where she can stash her stuff for a few hours. Here’s where she can rest for a moment without gathering suspicion. It’s difficult enough being a high schooler, juggling friends, hobbies, jobs. Now add the emotional weight of her situation, the pins-and-needles precariousness of their plight. So when kind friends bolster her desire to audition for a performing arts college — what, you thought the star of Moana wouldn’t get a fine original song to perform here? — it’s nice, and we want her to succeed. But the movie isn’t about a pat happy ending. It finds moments of emotional catharsis, and a few big isn’t-it-pretty-to-think lucky breaks by the end, but leaves its final outcome tantalizingly open-ended. Its heart is in the painful connection between a struggling mother and daughter, whose tensions are based in poverty and constrained choices, whose words wound even and especially when love is at its toughest and most raw. Machado and Cavalho’s scenes together crackle with the immediacy of their present-tense crises while carrying unspoken years of baggage underneath every line. So even when a crusty old lady (Carol Burnett) lets her heart melt a smidgen or a drama teacher (Armisen) lends a kind hand or a friend offers a brief respite, there’s a sense that there’s no easy turnkey to solve this poor girl’s deepest dilemmas. It’s moving in what’s becoming the typical Haley way: drawing open emotional honesty out of stories lesser hands would’ve played for predictable surfaces and sentimentality.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Last Call: I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS

Charlie Kaufman’s exhilarating and exasperating I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins with a sustained sequence of skin-crawling social discomfort, and it only gets worse from there. It’s a brilliant nightmare. The film conjures a psychologically claustrophobic vice grip and proceeds to send it in twists, twists, twists. With each moment it tightens, almost unendurably, as the tension grows. The emotions are hyper-focused, but the details start slipping. At first it’s two people in a car, a long snowy trip. She (Jessie Buckley) tells us in voice over that she’s thinking of ending things. Not a great start. He (Jesse Plemons) is her boyfriend. They’re driving to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their far-off farmhouse. It’ll be her first time. So that is understandably tense. It’s worse when they get there—right at sunset, eerily quiet, snow threatening to turn into a blizzard, animals dead by the barn. Life’s hard on a farm, he says. Then there are the parents: awkward, nervous, needling, full of ticks, both over-accommodating and passive aggressive. It’s all a bit much. And this is before the young woman’s name starts casually changing, and then everyone seems much older all of a sudden, and how much time has passed? And wait, wasn’t she a poet? Or a painter? Or is that a physicist or gerontologist or cinephile? The longer we stay in this house, the cuts grow disjunction between details—a dog here, then there, then…where? Does it seem that the living room is also a hospital room, at the same time? Lukaz Zal’s chilly camerawork and Robert Frazen’s sharp editing are hyper-focused on Molly Hughes’ precise production design — every kitschy prop placed just so — but slips, elides. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’re in a familiar place that’s simultaneously unfamiliar.

It makes perfect sense, except when it doesn’t. It’s strange, except when it isn’t. In typical Kaufman fashion — screenwriter of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s clever reality-bending wiliness, and writer-director of the dizzyingly existential Synecdoche, New York — the film is a construct meant to jolt us into contemplation, making its rabbit-hole philosophical rumination vivid, tactile. The longer it goes on, the more we realize we’re trapped with these people, straining to figure them out, squinting to reconcile the slow drip of strange details, stylistic flourishes, strange in-jokes, dazzling monologues, creepy Lynchian asides, long dark roads to nowhere, Oklahoma!, Pauline Kael, horror movies, snow tires, milkshakes, A Beautiful Mind, David Foster Wallace, a shuffling janitor, rapidly aging parents, mental slippage, enervating couples’ arguments, stilted silences, and an animated pig. In the end it’s about the inevitability of age, decay, and death, the uncertainty of life, the strange dysfunctions we pass on to those around us, and the sad slow process of realizing we can’t ever really know anyone. The road there is obsessively detailed, the plot at once baroque and skeletal, the performances ice-pick perfect and tightrope dazzling, while the emotions get razored into the fabric of reality itself, leaving all frayed. And somehow the whole thing is both intuitive and inscrutable. In other words, it’s a Charlie Kaufman picture.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Closing Time: BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS

The party’s over in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The bar is closing down, reaching the end of the road, a dead end. By the end of the film, it’s clear so has its patrons’ lifestyle, and maybe something essential about the country, too. The film is a slice-of-life, set in the last day of a tiny dive tucked in a strip mall away from the glitz of the Las Vegas strip. Never has the term hangout movie been more appropriate. We start early in the morning, with one particular regular (Michael Martin) being awoken from last night’s stupor. He’s chummy with the owner, and proud that, though he’s an alcoholic, he “ruined [his] life before” he started drinking. He didn’t fail because he drinks; if that was the case, he says, that’d be sad. Instead he’s pleasantly buzzed, kind and gently irascible, prone to melancholy or fleeting irritation, sometimes drinking, sometimes reading, sometimes chatting, sometimes decorating for the closing festivities. As other regulars shuffle in throughout the day, the place fills with bar talk, and the film is chockablock with overheard conversations, characterizations painted with a flash of an exchange, backstories implied with a heavy glance or a twinkle in the eye. Directors Bill and Turner Ross, longtime cult-favorite documentarians of artfully edited verite and bewitching moods, have here created an enveloping experience, drawing on their nonfiction skills. Their earlier works turn observed events into swooning evocations of moments, an elevated fly-on-the-wall through soulful aesthetics. Here their specificity and artful eye is turned on a staged scenario. The patrons’ are recruited improvisers — some professional, some not — and the situation invented, but the conversations and behavior that follows is all observed. Eventually, drunken confessions and stumbling silliness accrues. There’s casual amusement here, of the people-watching, eavesdropping sort. And there’s great sadness too, of wasted potential, and soggy regrets.

It’s alive with the bustling energy of bar conversations, woozily dipping between delight and despair, and lingering on distinctive faces while the soundtrack clutters the talking with snatches of whatever is on the TV or jukebox at the time. The lively barfly energy mingles with a sense of inevitable finality. The carousing and philosophizing springs from similar sources of boozy doom. It adds up to a melancholic portrait of a particular stripe of struggling working class people. The characters—and, oh, are they characters— are veterans, factory workers, waitresses, plus stoner teens in the back alley and some old people inside who used to be them. There’s some talk of politics — this is set in 2016, after all — and generational strife. A couple guys in their late-20s or early-30s are making hay of boomer failures, expressing profound sadness that they’re coming in at the end of something, that the older folks have squandered potential and ruined it for the rest of us. But mainly there’s a sadness of a small, imperfect community passing away. There's little room for a business so small, no matter how much it means to the people there. What is lost when we can’t afford simple human contact? (Boy, is this movie timely.) Making community, making connections, doesn’t turn a profit. Here, everybody, as the Cheers theme goes, knows your name. They care. They know each other, or think they do. (Do they, really?) They recognize each another, and see themselves reflected in one another. But in the end, the morning rises on the next dawn and the bar will close its doors for good. The movie’s sadness extends not just to what’s lost, but what’s never been possible. Was this place and the community it made ultimately worthwhile? Was it an enabler? Both, I guess. We’re family, the drunks admiringly say, though some push back on that, including Martin who says, “I am someone you hang out with at the bar. I am not your family.” The party is over. In the harsh light of day, what’s left? As the song goes, “Is that all there is?”

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Time Keeps on Slippin': BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC

For all the ways Bill and Ted, they of the Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, are like so many comedy film duos, there’s something singular about them, too. These SoCal teenage friends act like stoners but never toke, surfers but live inland, bros but never get nasty.  For all their dim-bulb energy, they’re surprisingly shrewd when they need to be. For all their slacker energy, they nonetheless can commit themselves to a big goal and see it through to the end. (Maybe that’s what being told you’re destined to save the world will get you.) Sure, they’re dopey, but they’re lovably dopey. After all, it’s not just any pair of best buddies who could’ve traveled through time for a history project or visited heaven and hell while joshing with death and take it in such stride. Their two blissfully silly movies from the late-80s and early-90s were carried along entirely on their goofball sci-fi charms, shaggy low-stakes treatment of space-time fatalism, and, above all else, that unrepeatable fortuitous chemistry from writing two amiably idiosyncratic characters and finding the exact right pair of actors to bring them to life. So even though Bill & Ted Face the Music is easily the least of the now trilogy of comedies starring those guys, it’s still capable of capturing some of their low-key cleverness and aw-shucks capitulation to whatever fate has in store for them. Destiny, after all, is always easier with a best pal along for support. Everyone involved is having a good time.

And so it is that when Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter step back into the roles for the third time, after three decades away, it feels like a pleasant reunion. Sure, they’re older, but you understand they’re basically the same people. Turns out they had some minor success with their rock band Wyld Stallyns, but have stalled out, now playing family weddings and open mic nights. It’s not clear how they have enough to support themselves, let alone their wives and kids. But they still love each other’s company and have each other’s back. Good thing, too, since yet another futuristic visitor (this time Kristen Schaal, playing the daughter of George Carlin’s character from the original) shows up and asks for their help saving the universe by playing one killer song. Only problem: they haven’t written it yet. This leads them hither and yon through some wispily sketched time travel ideas where they encounter various versions of their future selves while attempting to hop to a time in which they’ve already written the song. Director Dean Parisot and returning screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon have a good enough time goofing around with the idea. And the actors are still so winning as the leads that it’s hard to dislike the movie. Yet its best idea is giving the guys grown daughters (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine), who are pitch-perfect young-woman versions of the eponymous duo. They have the same charming chemistry and earnestly dewey dopiness. I almost wish the balance of the film was flipped, giving them more screen time and making their subplot — a jaunt through time to collect the Greatest Musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, and Mozart, for their dads’ band — the main attraction. How rare to do a Next Generation of a beloved cult comedy team and have it work so well, even if the film around it is a bit thin.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Now Streaming: HENRY GAMBLE'S BIRTHDAY PARTY and PRINCESS CYD

Now on Criterion Channel you can stream three films from one of America's finest working indie filmmakers. Chicago-based writer-director Stephen Cone draws intimate interpersonal dramas of our modern moment with the quiet specificity of people gently talking around big problems, perhaps broaching the subject with sensitivity or letting it steadily simmer unsaid. He tracks the subterranean desires of his characters, letting his performers surface them in flashes, or letting others go spelunking for them. These are wordy movies, flush with literate dialogue and studied silences, but they never feel less than real. Here's a filmmaker going for earnestness instead of cynicism, who understands his characters rather than cajoles them, who finds Big Ideas in Small Moments, casually, humanely, deeply felt. If you've missed out on his work thus far, it's high time to get caught up.

About his 2016 feature Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, a film set at a closeted Christian teen's eponymous gathering, I wrote:

Cone maps out the relationships amongst the characters with low-key Altman-esque flair...There’s some talk about politics and religion, fleeting and glancing references to sex, but it bubbles naturally out of softly coded conversations. Whether a closeted gay kid quietly wrestling with a crush, a student at a Christian college struggling with feelings of spiritual lapse, a middle-aged woman torn about the state of society (“You aren’t going Democrat on us, are you?”), or a mother softly nursing a strained marriage, these are real people subtly feeling out those around them, looking for likeminded compatriots. They just want someone to understand them, to connect with them without judgment. Cone treats cultural tensions and pressures as simply normal, and the tincture of gentle melodrama simmering underneath is humane.
His 2017 film Princess Cyd was one of my Top Ten of that year. I wrote:

Cone...crafts an intimate, sensitive dual portrait of these women [a teenager and her novelist aunt] as they enter into a dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, with each other over the course of their weeks together. His screenplay marries an open and engaged discourse – the sort of flowing, beautifully ordinary and rigorously intelligent language of a fine playwright – with a soft and supple eye for detail – the kind of attuned observation you’d find in the most perceptive and subtle of short stories. There’s a sense that these are real people in a film that never stoops to reduce them to easily digestible didactic drama...Cone holds this tension in the screenplay’s deft turns and in cinematographer Zoe White’s frames of sunny beauty, catching with deliberate off-handedness the features of their faces, bodies, clothes, neighborhood, friends and interests. There’s a touch of Rohmer in this beautifully contained, yet rich and full, meeting, of small ordinary shifts in perception, subtle moves between individuals pushing and pulling, closing gaps of empathy and opening new wounds. This is a movie so humane it’s full to the brim with compassion for its characters. It realizes a person is a work in progress, and watches lovingly as two very different women are changed in some small measure by their encounter with the other.

In re-reading my reviews, I find I was drawn to compare him to both Altman and Rohmer. Maybe add Demme to the list. He's an inheritor of the tradition of auteurs drawn to precisely detailed characterizations in films that flow as naturally as conversation. He's interested in who these people are, not only what his plots can tell us. He's interested in patiently drawn out scenes, not to showboat, but to study, empathize and emphasize. And he's generously able to let his cast inhabit the particulars with comfortable ease. The results are well worth discovering.